Public Release: 

Maternal alcohol use during pregnancy may increase offspring's breast cancer risk

American Association for Cancer Research

Boston, MA (October 15, 2002) - Women who drink moderate to high quantities of alcohol during pregnancy could be contributing to an increased risk of breast cancer among their daughters, according to a study presented today at the first annual Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Research meeting conducted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).

"Our earlier studies have shown that what a mother eats during her pregnancy may affect her daughter's future risk of breast cancer," says Dr. Leena Hilakivi-Clarke, professor of oncology and director of tumor biology, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, and senior investigator of the study. Diet can increase circulating estrogen levels; high in utero estrogen levels increase breast cancer risk by making the developing breast cells vulnerable to later events that can turn them malignant. Since alcohol increases both estrogens in the blood as well as breast cancer risk, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center wondered whether alcohol exposure in utero through a pregnant mother affects breast cancer risk.

"Women should continue to heed warnings that alcohol intake during pregnancy should be significantly limited to protect their offspring," according to Anna Cabanes, instructor in the Department of Oncology, Lombardi Cancer Center, Georgetown University, and another key investigator of the study.

This study involved feeding pregnant rats moderate and high amounts of alcohol during pregnancy. The exposures increased pregnancy estrogen levels, but did not have any adverse effect on normal fetal development. When the female offspring reached adulthood, they were given a carcinogen to initiate mammary cancer. Results of the study showed that offspring who were exposed to a moderate or high dose of alcohol in utero experienced a significantly higher number of breast tumors when compared to controls.

While no human studies are available that have investigated the link between maternal alcohol intake during pregnancy and daughter's breast cancer risk, there is evidence that alcohol intake increases pregnancy estrogen levels in women. Further, findings obtained in human studies suggest that the in utero period plays an important role in determining future risk of developing breast cancer.

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More than 203,500 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed and more than 39,600 women will die in 2002, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women.

Founded in 1907, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) is a professional society of more than 19,000 laboratory and clinical scientists engaged in cancer research in the United States in more than 60 other countries. AACR's mission is to accelerate the prevention and cure of cancer through research, education, communication and advocacy. Its principal activities include the publication of five major peer-reviewed scientific journals (Cancer Research; Clinical Cancer Research; Molecular Cancer Therapeutics; Molecular Cancer Research; and Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention).

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